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Party line leaves Congress with few morals

Judy Garland, Community Voices • Nov 25, 2013 at 4:45 PM

Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church recently offered this community a remarkable three-hour experience called “The Poverty Simulation.” Participants were challenged to enter the stark realities of the working poor.

Participants were divided into families of diverse configurations, informed of their poverty-level monthly incomes, special needs of family members and necessary budget categories and given the task of making do week by week for one month. More simulators represented the offices of local, state and federal agencies and local volunteer organizations from whom families could seek assistance.

Learning about this took me back to the days when we lived from paycheck to paycheck, often juggling resources to meet unexpected expenses like medical bills. Thankfully, we had insurance through work to pay for most of the costs, as well as regular pay increases, the promise of better days and advancement opportunities and retirement security. Our struggles were temporary, which is seldom the case with today’s low-income earners.

Meanwhile congressional tea party members, including our own U.S. Rep Phil Roe, R-1st, intend to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as opposed to the Senate’s proposed $4 billion. Why, we ask, make such steep cuts? Fraud, they answer, and say (while channeling Ayn Rand) SNAP lowers the incentive to work. Certainly, there are dishonest takers who’ll find another way to our pocketbooks without food stamps. Businesses, particularly retailers, lump them in a budget category called “shrinkage.” That includes shoplifters and thieving employees, and the cost of those losses reverts to us.

The real numbers, however, tell a truth that Roe and company choose to overlook.

Half of food stamp recipients are children, one-fifth are elderly, thousands are veterans and many are single-mothers with average incomes of around $8 an hour. Last year, the average daily SNAP supplement in Tennessee was $4.45 less than $140 a month. For those on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a family of four receives $164 a month and faces a five-year lifetime limit. It isn’t just unemployment that sends a mom and/or dad on the dignity-destroying trek to seek public assistance. Most have jobs and work hard for minimum pay with no benefits and certainly no health insurance.

Voting with Roe to cut food stamps was U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-8th. Both want to add $9 billion to expand crop insurance for farmers like Fincher. He’s one of the biggest beneficiaries of that taxpayer gift — receiving the second-highest subsidy of any farmer in Congress, and is one of Tennessee’s all-time most subsidized leeches.

I wonder if Roe winced just a little when Fincher quoted the Bible in defense of food stamp cuts and labeled help for the needy “stealing.”

In addition to cutting $40 billion from SNAP, Roe introduced legislation to limit the variety of foods purchasable through SNAP. That means no white potatoes or rice; no soups, no orange juice or milk with added calcium and no salsa sold in jars.

It strikes me that he’s now focused on healthy choices when so recently he fought the changes enacted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for healthier school lunches. It was unnerving to hear a doctor advocating for as many oily (white) potato tots as students would eat.

It’s hard, I guess, to find a consistent groove when your ideological cohorts demand you judge the merits of an idea by the side of the aisle it came from or whether the president or Mrs. Obama is somehow connected to it.

I recall a forum where Roe brought as props a big bag of chips and a 32-ounce soda. Our good doctor envisioned meeting with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, toting his fat-laden and salty chips and outsized sugar soda to make his statement about freedom.

Now, though, when it comes to limiting what poor people can choose, choice is expendable — of course he reserves the right to assume at will another face to serve his already two-faced notion of freedom.

Every mainline Protestant church, the Catholic Church, and all Jewish groups have condemned how the tea party is approaching the Ag bill with its rich subsidy increases and its massive cuts to SNAP.

Locally, people at Munsey Memorial have taken their stand, as have we in my church. Just when might those inner values make a difference to those who presumably carry them to Washington? A look at their websites will find proud displays of church membership and mostly in one of the mainline denominations.

I wonder when it’ll dawn on us that the $174,000 annual salary, plus liberal benefits and guaranteed retirement, paid to Roe and his tea party friends now “serving” in history’s least productive Congress, made so by their own arrogance, has morphed into another taxpayer subsidy and another empty drain on the budget.

This bunch, fixated on saving taxpayer money by cutting government, they say, just cost us $24 billion, the confidence of the American people and the respect of the world with their ill-conceived (and possibly criminal) government shutdown.

They should resign voluntarily, but, barring that, we could at least send them a bill, symbolic or real, just to spur some inner moral conflict. For certain, no statesman ever claimed entitlement to so much moral wiggle room.

Judy Garland of Johnson City is a community activist.

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